A Detroit mom took to Facebook last Friday to issue a warning to other moms: Beware of "Spider Balls." The weird science-type kit sent one of her children to the hospital, and she hopes to spare other parents the same ordeal by sharing hers.
The toy, which retails at Amazon.com for about $5, was given to Kas' 4-year-old son as a Christmas gift. It's just one of those cheap little things people are apt to stuff in stockings: a good diversion for curious kids in the post-holiday coma, but nothing particularly groundbreaking.
In her post, Kas said the toy looked a little weird and made her nervous from the start, given that it looks similar to candy, and she even considered just taking a pass on it altogether. She decided to give it a whirl anyway, though, a decision she hopes other parents won't make.
Her younger son, 2-year-old Decklyn, got a hold of one and did what toddlers do: He popped it into his mouth. He ended up in the hospital, says Kas, and because the toy is made of a material that can't be X-rayed, there wasn't much doctors could do but keep an eye on him and make sure he passed it.
Kas is right to be concerned, and you should be too. The toy makes use of superabsorbent polymers, or SAPs, which start out as tiny, hard little pellets that expand up to 100 to 400 times when they come in contact with liquid and turn into squishy little balls. SAPs have mostly been used in agriculture, and you can use them as a medium for cut flowers too; they're great at holding liquid and can be re-expanded when they dry out.
Recently they've become popular in toy manufacturing. They come in lots of appealing colors, and you may recognize them from another popular toy called Orbeez.
Swallowing SAPs is no joke. Little ones who mistake them for candy or just something neat to stick into their mouths might swallow them dry, but if food or drink follows, the pellets can swell and become an intestinal blockage or, in rare cases, perforate the intestinal wall.
The first instance of this happening was in 2011, and the doctors who encountered it concluded that "community awareness is necessary to avoid such material in homes where there is a risk of accidental ingestion by children or mentally retarded persons."
The Spider Balls product has been pulled from its manufacturer's website, so we couldn't find safety information for it, but at least other toy manufacturers seem to be taking it seriously. The very first FAQ on the Orbeez product page at least advises you to seek medical attention if your kid swallows it:
That's all well and good for an older child, but there clearly needs to be more information for parents of younger kids, who could be shoveling handfuls of the things into their mouths.
Because they can't be picked up with an X-ray, they sometimes require surgery to remove. What makes Spider Balls particularly dangerous is right there in its own product description:
"Drop one in water and find out as a multitude of multicolored balls will burst forth from the green sac and grow up to 100 times its size within hours."
Instead of just individual balls to worry about, if a kid swallows one of the "green sacs," they've got a whole bunch of little jelly balls to contend with, all capable of expanding. No wonder that shook Kas up.
Fortunately Kas saw her toddler swallow the toy, which meant she knew he'd done it and could act quickly. Unfortunately, like button batteries, these things are tiny enough that a little one could pop one into their mouth unnoticed, and if they started exhibiting symptoms like fever, abdominal pain and distension and vomiting, you might not know why.
That's why even though these toys are safe for older kids, you might want to skip them altogether if you've got little ones in the house. And if you do notice a baby or toddler exhibiting the symptoms above, and you know there's a chance that they've come in contact with SAPs, you'll want to seek medical attention right away.
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